Samantha “Sam” Magna sat with fellow seniors in the library at South San Antonio High School, waiting for a visit from an alumnus. Communities in Schools occasionally arranges these inspirational pep talks for the seniors involved in their program.

Magna had no idea what was in store for her Tuesday afternoon.

Communities in Schools places case managers, called site coordinators, on high school campuses to connect to at-risk kids. The site coordinators help students identify the obstacles students face that may keep them from graduating. Sometimes the barriers are hunger and lack of transportation, sometimes it is pressure to drop out and get a job.

Across Bexar, Atascosa, and Frio counties, Communities in Schools of San Antonio has forged partnerships with resources such as the San Antonio Food Bank and VIA Metropolitan Transit to lower those barriers. In the 90 schools in 11 school districts where they work, the site coordinators also sponsor support groups and study groups.

Bringing back role models to testify to the road ahead is another way Communities in Schools keeps students focused.

When District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña walked into the library, there was a little gasp from the group.

“Rey!” a couple of kids whispered excitedly.

The students at South San know Saldaña. Like them, he graduated from South San. Like them he was involved with Communities in Schools. Like them, Saldaña was the first in his family to go to college. He comes back regularly to check in on the students. On Tuesday, they figured he was there to celebrate their imminent graduation.

South San Antonio High School senior, Samantha Magna, high-fives the drum line at the Surprise Graduation Celebration.
South San Antonio High School senior Samantha Magna high-fives the drum line at the surprise graduation celebration. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

“It’s finally happening,” Saldaña joked with one student. The student rolls his eyes playfully. “Finally!” the student replied.

The visit was going as many had before. Saldaña recalled his site coordinator, who stopped him in the hall his sophomore year at South San.

“That was when I found out that life after high school was real for me,” Saldaña said. “I knew more people who had gone to jail than had gone to college.”

Just like Saldaña went on to college, at Stanford University, Magna and her peers are preparing for college in the fall. They sat making signs with their destination school names on them.

Magna is headed to Texas A&M University in College Station, and she gives a lot of credit to Communities in Schools. Surrounded by her peers, all of whom are part of Communities in Schools at South San, Magna feels deeply supported. Her advisors, Regan Arevalos and Patricia Hernandez, are particularly special to her.

“I consider them part of my family,” Magna said.

The site coordinators play the most critical role in Communities in Schools’ success, Saldaña said.

“It’s not about a program. It’s about a relationship,” he said.

For kids who have seen adults continually break promises and let them down, the Communities in Schools advisors have the chance to defy expectations.

Magna’s classmate Oscar Acevedo called South San site coordinator Christal Alexander the single most caring adult in his life.

The group of 24 South San seniors are proof that what stands between at-risk and college bound is not a mystery, Communities in School San Antonio CEO Jessica Weaver said. It is not easy, but it is obvious to her: A caring adult makes all the difference.

Consistency has been an asset at South San, where students are involved in the program for four years, Weaver said. The continuity gives the site coordinator and advisors time to confront not just one obstacle, but many obstacles, and prove to the students that there isn’t a limit to the support they will receive.

“They know that we believe in what they don’t necessarily see,” Weaver said. “We believe in them, and that they will succeed.”

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) leads South San Antonio High School students down a hall to their surprise graduation celebration.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) leads South San Antonio High School students down a hall to their surprise graduation celebration. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

For many of Magna’s friends, there are plenty of reasons to believe that they won’t succeed. Applying for college seems to come out of nowhere, along with all the fees. Her cousin didn’t apply to the schools she really wanted to attend because the application fees were too high. Communities in Schools connected Magna to Upward Bound, a U.S. Department of Education program that helps first-generation college students from low income backgrounds get to college. The program even provides waivers for some application fees. For Magna, that practical preparation made a huge difference in her comfort heading to college.

Communities in Schools also takes the students to college weekends, summer college prep camps, and helps them prepare for the SAT and ACT.

For first-generation college students like Magna, who couldn’t ask her parents for advice, each of these experiences is one less question mark about her future. Her parents can cheer her on. 

Back in the library, Saldaña handed out white Communities in Schools sashes to adorn the graduates’ robes when they walk the stage for their graduation ceremony in a couple of weeks.

Under the pretext of posing for a picture, he led the seniors out into a courtyard, and then proposed that they keep walking. The students began to giggle as they followed Saldaña along a trail of Communities in Schools personnel leading the way to the school’s auditorium.

As they approached, the sound of a drum line erupted around the corner. The students, wearing their white sashes, walked through a “spirit tunnel” of underclassmen involved in Communities in Schools. Confetti cannons and plastic trumpets followed the students into the auditorium where balloons and music were waiting.

In the seats were mentors, parents, Communities in Schools alumni, and even the students’ employers.

“They know they have an army of people who are there to celebrate them,” Saldaña said to the crowd. That army would continue to support them into college, he pledged.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.